Wood Design and Product Development A North American Perspective on European Innovation Part 1 Building Design
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As an American architect living in Cambridge I have become a keen observer of the variations between North American and European trends in wood design and construction. Having trained in the Pacific Northwest and practiced predominately in Northern New England, my career has been deeply intertwined with wood design and construction. My current situation has afforded me a valuable perspective on this fertile period in wood design and product development.
Although traditions and practices vary substantially from region to region, light wood construction is undeniably the most ubiquitous form of building in North America. The scale of the wood construction industry has created a mature market for engineered structural lumber products and these products are far more prevalent there than in the UK. However, while these products undoubtedly contribute significantly to a greater utilization of resources, there is still a growing sentiment that the focus of product innovation has shifted to Europe. Whether it is complacency, inertia, or regulatory complexity that has led to this shift, it is interesting to observe this trend from the European perspective.
Many of the most exciting and significant contemporary American and Canadian architecture practices masterfully feature wood design in their work. Firms such as Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Olson Kundig Architects, Thomas Hacker, James Cutler, Kieran-Timberlake exhibit skill and sensibility with the material.
In Lancashire, UK the recently Stirling prize long listed Brockholes Nature Reserve Visitor Centre by Adam Khan Architects, strikingly represents European wood design sensibility. Though the project brings to mind Maryann Thompson’s 1997 Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida, the project’s subtle mix of modern and traditional materials, and its strong reference to its site, make this project uniquely English. Recently recognized with the Canadian Wood Council’s prestigious Ron Thom Award, the Nova Scotia architect Brain MacKay-Lyons has worked throughout his career to further innovate within a continuous wood building tradition. Though often strikingly modern, his work is developed from vernacular materials and traditions and proudly celebrates wood design and building.
In contrast the recently recognized Winnipeg Skating Shelter project by Patkau Architects of Vancouver, BC demonstrates a new and ingenious use of the potential of wood products.
As interesting as it is to see regional design trends and varying ways of using materials, the difference between the European and American approach to wood design is most evident at the level of product development. This is the arena in where the sense of a shift in the center of innovation is most prevalent.This spring at Eco-Build in London I saw numerous examples of innovative European products ranging from composite wood products to pre-fab rain screens, and structural insulated panels made entirely of wood-based materials. In general, a greater chemical sophistication was demonstrated in the European approach to composites and insulation. In particular, it was refreshing to see PVC-free composite material such as UPM Profi deck and facade products. It was also exciting to see the different approach to the use of natural resources; an approach that demonstrates a greater appreciation of durability, simplicity and presentability. These values are not lost on the American markets, but somehow do not appear as fundamental to the development of new wood products.
There are encouraging things happening on both side of the Atlantic, but it is particularly interesting to be experiencing this period of rapid innovation with a perspective on both approaches, and I look forward to further exploring the difference on the level of individual products.
Ryan Elias Kanteres, AIA LEED ap BD+C
Cambridge, UK, 8th October, 2012